Struggle for the Light
July 1/Health Business Week-- Despite increased buzz about healthy dining and restaurant nutrition labeling, new findings from Mintel Menu Insights suggest healthy menu items still face a tough battle for acceptance.

Surveying American diners, Mintel found that only one in five (20%) rank food health as an important factor when ordering dinner. Far more essential are taste and hunger satisfaction, selected by 77% and 44% of respondents, respectively, when describing what they look for on a dinner menu. In addition, although over three-quarters of adults claim they would like to see more healthy items on the menu, barely half (51%) say they usually order them.

"There's definitely a dichotomy between what people say they want and what they actually do when it comes to healthy restaurant eating," says director of Mintel Menu Insights, Maria Caranfa, registered dietician. "Over eight in 10 adults told us it is very or somewhat important to them to eat healthy, but when it comes to dining out, most people are really looking for taste, texture and experience. So healthy menu items need to perfect the balance between nutrition and flavor."

Price remains a deterrent to healthy restaurant fare, especially as the economy weighs down people's finances. Over half of Mintel's survey respondents (54%) say eating healthy at restaurants is more expensive than not eating healthy. Caranfa agrees that "when it comes to healthy menu items, the prices are often higher and less promoted."

Additionally, even though restaurants are creating more nutritious food and drink, "healthy" items are still dwarfed by regular, and even anti-health, menu items. Mintel Menu Insights found that during Q1 2009, only 5% of new items carried a nutritional claim, while nearly one in five new food items was fried.

Despite obstacles faced by the healthy food menu, pressure exists for restaurants to add more wholesome options. The government is trying to increase nutrition labeling on menus, and Mintel's survey shows over three-quarters of diners want more menu transparency on food health.

"Restaurants need to make 'healthy' food appeal on flavor, freshness and satiety benefits, not just on calorie and fat information," recommends Caranfa. "People seek fresh ingredients and more vegetables in healthy food, both of which can be promoted in a positive way. Healthy dining should be as satisfying as ordering from the regular menu."

From the July 6, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition